DEARBORN, MICH. - Rapid prototyping has been growing so fast there were more systems sold in 1994 than in all of 1992 and 1993 combined. The fast-developing technol-ogy has been in the flashy and gee-whiz category, but that is changing. Consultant Terry Wohlers of Fort Collins, Colo., said the process is maturing to the point that it is becoming a critical part of everyday business at many companies.
``Revenue estimates from product sales and services grew by 99.7 percent in 1994, making rapid prototyping an estimated $198 million industry. Our forecasts indicate the 1995 market will exceed $318 million and in 1996 will reach $475 million,'' Wohlers said.
Wohlers' spoke at Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing '95, held May 2-4 in Dearborn. The conference was sponsored by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers' Rapid Prototyping Association of Dearborn.
In the first quarter of 1995, the installed base of rapid prototyping systems surpassed 1,000 units, Wohlers said. That figure should hit 1,500 by the end of this year with 1995 sales reaching 540 units, he said.
Wohlers told the audience it could expect rapid prototyping to improve and become more cost effective over the next decade in an evolution somewhat similar to that in personal computing in recent years.
He said 3D Systems Inc. of Valencia, Calif., led the field in 1994 with 94 systems sold. Helisys Inc. of Torrance, Calif., with sales of 76 systems, was second.
But the picture is not entirely rosy, he added. Some system makers fail to offer rapid prototyping products at price-performance levels users of computer-aided design and manufacturing have come to expect.
``The market is not big enough to support 16 system manufacturers. It's inevitable that companies and technologies will merge, change ownership or simply disappear,'' he said. As an example, he cited the acquisition earlier this year by Stratasys Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn., of IBM's rapid prototyping technology.
Wohlers said the service bureau aspect of rapid prototyping is booming with bureaus expanding by adding machines and people to meet burgeoning demand for rapid prototype parts and services.
Some observers have been calling desktop rapid prototyping the hot ticket, a fast-growing segment. But Wohlers, while expecting desktop rapid prototyping to grow, sees no boom. He says it is tiny now, adds another step to the design and manufacturing process, and is not easy to justify.
In Japan there are 14 different systems available. Of those, eight are from U.S. and European manufacturers.
``No other country offers access to so many technologies. At the same time, fewer than 120 systems are in operation throughout the entire country,'' he said.
He said a weak economy and Japan's limited use of CAD solid modeling have been factors in slow sales of rapid prototyping systems and their use often is on an experimental basis.
In Europe, with the exception of Germany, rapid prototyping work is focused on application of existing technologies and on education. Most work is done through consortia.